By his own admission, actor Randy Harrison is where he is today because of Justin Taylor, the twink he played in the US version of Queer As Folk. That was in 2000, when he was 23. He just turned 40. In New York, he spoke to DNA about his new project, directing a web series called New York Is Dead, his roles in Cabaret and Wicked. And, of course, his former life as Justin.
But first, how hard is it for gay actors to be out?
I don’t know how to answer that. You see, I’ve always been out, since before I was a professional actor, since my early teens. I can’t compare and contrast because I’ve never been in the closet or a heterosexual actor. All actors struggle with hardship and difficulty getting work during different periods. I don’t know if the struggles I face are because I’m openly gay.
Some of the frustration I had early in my career was from being so strongly associated with one particular role but that would’ve happened to any actor. But maybe it happened to me very early because it was Queer As Folk and because I was out.
Many working actors can’t afford to come out, which is a real shame.
It is. Something that served me well is that I’ve never lived in the Hollywood paradigm. I didn’t aggressively pursue a big film or television career after Queer As Folk. I’m a New Yorker, I’m an East-Coaster, not a Hollywood type.
I knew that when the show was over, and I did rather well as an actor and got into some creative work and literature and theatre writing that I wanted to do. It helped that I wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, which could’ve potentially damaged me.
If I was trying to be an action star I’m sure being a gay actor would’ve been much more of a detriment than being gay in regional theatre. That’s just a very different [he smiles] world.
Cabaret speaks so directly to using hate to generate political power, and to the consequences of being disengaged politically and ignoring what’s happening.
Justin was systematically and repeatedly betrayed, lied to, condescended to and humiliated by his boyfriend for four years – why on Earth did he stick with him?
I don’t know. I didn’t write the character, you know! Um… It was a sort of queer co-dependent relationship. It wasn’t a healthy relationship from a rational point of view but from a serial television point of view it was a beautiful dramatic story for a lot of people. A lot of people felt it was redemptive and romantic for both characters in some capacity. I didn’t create the relationship. Or the characters. It was just my job to play it. Yeah.
Your latest project is called New York Is Dead, which you’ve directed. What’s it about?
It’s a black comedy about two struggling New York City artists who are gradually being forced out of the city because of rising rents and the culture. Then they get mistaken for hitmen and decide to continue telling people that’s what they are so they can stay in the city. It’s very funny. It’s violent, it’s dark and sort of fun. They’re despicable characters, and there’s a bit of a social commentary about the economic situation in a bunch of American cities.
How long were you in Wicked on Broadway?
I was in it for five weeks – that’s it. I was a vacation replacement for Christopher Fitzgerald who was the original Boq. Stints are not usually that short but I just went in during summer when he was having a break. I think I went into it the week after the Tony Awards. I did it with Kristin Chenoweth [original Glinda] and Idina Menzel [original Elphaba] and most of the original cast.
Sure, five weeks is not very long, but it’s long enough to have a blast?
Yes! It was great. It was very fast. I’d never been a replacement before so to join a show where the track was already set I really had to work. I rehearsed by myself, with the stage manager, the dance captain, the musical director but not with any other actors. Then I had to go in on a Friday and my first performance was on the following Tuesday. It was a process I’d never done before. But it was really fun and the cast were wonderful and helped me. Even though it was at the beginning of the run, that show was already like a finely-tuned machine. It was crazy to be part of.
You’ve done theatre all over the US – how does Broadway compare?
To be honest… I just finished 14 months touring the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Cabaret [in the lead role of the Emcee] and we played a lot of big touring houses that are much bigger than most Broadway houses. Broadway is definitely an achievement, it’s part of so many kids’ dreams and I was happy and proud and wanted to perform on Broadway and still do… but I think the most special thing about doing Broadway is touching the history of the American theatre, the history of Broadway, and being a part of that community, which is extraordinary. I want to perform in a lot of terrific theatres around the country and around the world.
Let’s discuss Cabaret; it’s a crucial piece of theatre for today, would you agree? It’s frightening to be drawing parallels between Hitler and, er, other political leaders.
It’s horrifying. We were touring throughout the entire US election last year and we were performing on the night of the election and it was horrible. Cabaret speaks so directly to using hate to generate political power, it speaks so directly to the consequences of being disengaged politically and ignoring what’s happening. As an artist, I felt I was doing as much as I could to send a very important message during the election year. It felt like a wonderful act of resistance to get up on stage every night and do that.